The Omicron variant: what scientists know so far

The world was still recovering from the devasting effects of COVID-19 Delta variant when news of a new, much more powerful and potentially dangerous variant was announced by scientists and pathologists at Lancet Laboratories in South Africa.

The danger level of this variant is so high that the World Health Organization did not only designate the variant (B.1.1.529) as a “variant of concern” but also warned that there might be a possible global risk of a surge in infections.

Due to this, a number of countries have tightened travel and restrictions with travellers from South Africa stranded at various airports and being refused entry for fear of spreading the new variant.

In early November, Scientists and pathologists at the Lancet Laboratories in South Africa noticed that there were some recurring strange anomalies in the positive PCR tests they were studying. This, according to CNN,  reminded them of tests for the Alpha variant which was first detected more than a year ago in the United Kingdom.

Sensing danger, Lancet Laboratories notified South Africa’s genomics team – the team responsible for processing patient’s samples and interpreting test results, to study and provide details of their observations.

In a few days’ time, the genomic team published the details of their findings which identified characteristics of the highly mutated COVID-19 virus. The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) announced that it had confirmed 22 positive cases of the new variant after conducting genomic sequencing. More cases are being confirmed as test results come out.

On November 26, the WHO designated the strain, known as B.1.1.529, as a “variant of concern” and named it Omicron, on the advice of experienced scientists on the Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution. Omicron now joins Delta, Alpha, Beta and Gamma on the current WHO list of “variants of concern”.

Why the cause for alarm?

The decision to classify Omicron as a variant of concern was borne out of evidence presented to the WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution that suggests that the new variant has 10 times more mutations on the spike protein than the Delta variant, thus raising fears about how easily it spreads, the severity of illness and death it may cause and whether it can easily evade existing vaccines.

According to The Financial Times, Jeffery Barrett, the Director of Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at Wellcome Sanger Institute, Britain posits that the Omicron variant has an unprecedented sampling of mutations from the Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta variants together with other changes never seen before and whose significance is as yet unknown.

Mr Slawomir Kubik, a genomics research expert at Geneva-based biotech SOPHiA GENETICS, also said many of Omicron’s mutations came “completely out of the blue” and had not been observed before in other strains.

This has made scientists around the world racing to assess Omicron’s ability to evade existing vaccines and natural immunity.

Penny Moore, a virologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa whose lab is gauging the variant’s potential to dodge immunity from vaccines and previous infections said “We’re flying at warp speed,” when she was asked about efforts to understand the Omicron variant.

She further added that there are anecdotal reports of reinfections and of cases in vaccinated individuals, but at that stage, it’s too early to tell anything.

Dr Richard Lessells, an infectious-diseases physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, during a press briefing, observed that “The mutation profile gives us concern, but now we need to do the work to understand the significance of this variant and what it means for the response to the pandemic.”

Does Omicron increase the risk of reinfection?

According to the WHO, “preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron (ie, people who have previously had COVID-19 could become reinfected more easily with Omicron), as compared to other variants of concern.”

In a statement published by WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution, they explained that “the number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant, but epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of Omicron or other factors.”

The group also highlighted that they are not clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease as compared to other variants.

“While preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of a specific infection with Omicron”, the experts said.

They added that more information on this will become available in the coming days and weeks as they continue to “monitor and evaluate the data as it becomes available and assess how mutations in Omicron alter the behaviour of the virus.”

Reactions to the Omicron Variant

The Omicron variant was first detected in South Africa with the NICD confirming 22 positive cases.

Currently, it has become dominant with some 8,500 new Covid infections registered in the latest daily figures, according to the BBC.

According to the WHO, the Omicron variant has now been detected in at least 24 countries around the world including Ghana.

The troublesome variant presented a fresh challenge to global efforts to battle the pandemic. This is due to the fact that several countries have already reimposed restrictions which were becoming a thing of the past.

Amongst the countries which have imposed travel restrictions on Southern Africa are Qatar, United States, Britain, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands.

In the United States, for example, the Biden administration began restricting travel from eight southern African nations including Botswana and South Africa.

The U.K was not left out when it added 10 countries in southern Africa to its red list of countries it defines as high risk for new and emerging strains of coronavirus. It is important to note that the UK is requiring travellers to take several coronavirus tests and quarantine for at least 10 days before entering its territory.

Other countries like Japan, Australia and Israel are banning all foreign travels in response to the new variant, as reported by NPR

This stance by these countries isn’t going down well with some world leaders and they have been talking.

UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, speaking at an event in Bogota, Columbia described widespread travel bans imposed on southern African countries over fears of the Omicron variant as “unacceptable,” likening the restrictions to apartheid.

According to him, “We have the instruments to have safe travel. Let’s use those instruments to avoid this kind of, allow me to say, travel apartheid, which I think is unacceptable,” he said.

Cyril Ramaphosa has bemoaned the travel bans instituted against South Africa | Source: News 24

President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, speaking on the restrictions on travel said “the only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to and also to recover from the pandemic.”

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO Regional Director for Africa, opined that with the omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity.” He there advised that “we will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions.”

Also speaking on the restrictions on travel, the Director-General of WHO, Tedros Ghebreyesus, in his opening remarks at the Member State Information Session on the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 called on countries that imposed the bans to take a risk-based and scientific approach when putting measures in place to limit the spread of COVID. According to him, that includes using “the tools we already have to prevent transmission and save lives from delta,” he said.

This report is produced under the project: COVID-19 Response in Africa: Together for Reliable Information being implemented with funding support from the European Union.

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